Los Angeles Lakers rookie point guard Lonzo Ball and his younger brother LaMelo Ball are basketball players, not sneaker designers.
Yet the 19-year-old and 16-year-old both have signature shoes through their family-owned company Big Baller Brand. While others in the NBA have all the resources provided by worldwide leaders like adidas or Nike, the decision to go independent has already been met with some roadblocks.
Trial and error are natural in product design, but when the price point is much higher than competitors, the consumer will inevitably have even more reason to scrutinize.
Here is why LaVar Ball and Lonzo decided to scrap the first version of his signature shoe and how Big Baller Brand ended up where they are today.
The Original ‘ZO2’
David Corsi is a footwear executive who has experience with major shoe companies including Skechers, New Balance and Converse.
It’s possible that LaVar was previously familiar with Corsi because he is the Director of Operations for a competitive youth basketball team in Southern California. Corsi was a special guest of the Ball family at the 2017 NBA Draft in Brooklyn.
One quick glance at his LinkedIn profile indicates Corsi developed the basketball shoe that Lonzo occasionally wore during his summer league games in Las Vegas.
But it’s no secret Lonzo was hesitant to wear the original version of the ZO2 sneakers (via SB Nation):
“Ball played in different shoes throughout the summer league, but he played his two worst games in his own sneaker. He also did his first Lakers workout in a pair of James Harden Vol. 1 sneakers from Adidas … That summer league period could have just been one big wear test. There was speculation that Ball just wasn’t comfortable in his own shoe and was wearing shoes from other brands to find what fit worked best for him.”
Beyond the speculation mentioned above, there are no quotes or any kind of confirmation from Lonzo indicating he didn’t enjoy wearing the first version of his signature shoe.
But before any were even shipped to the consumer, they were removed from the market.
Even though Big Baller Brand first announced the $495 price tag for Lonzo’s signature shoe in May, they were not going to get shipped until November. The significant delay indicates there was likely not a manufacturing plan in place.
Nick DePaula, a sneaker industry expert, reported BBB made “repeated requests” to Chinese apparel company Anta about a manufacturing pitch. Anta was not interested in the proposed arrangement.
Even though people were already purchasing the shoe, they had nothing to offer. Is that why LaVar once literally gave former NBA player Rashad McCants the shoes off his feet?
If they wanted to produce something for the masses, it wasn’t going to be cheap (via ESPN):
“Each size warrants its own separate “tooling mold” — a metal cavity that rubber is poured into and then molded through a heating process into the bottom of the shoe. A mold can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the size and geometry. For a full-size run of sneakers ranging from sizes 7 through 13, including most half-sizes, that could mean paying for as much as 10 tooling molds.”
Other industry analysts estimate a tooling mold could run as pricey as $20,000 per size.
As such, the $495 price tag likely covered upfront costs for those molds as well as materials, design patents, design cutouts and manufacturing costs for labor.
When leading sneaker companies like Nike were not interested in co-branding opportunities, and when overseas businesses like Anta declined manufacturing partnerships, BBB decided to look locally.
They approached Brandblack, who once made signature shoes for Jamal Crawford. It seemed like a perfect fit considering the Southern California-based team has made it clear they are also trying to disrupt the sneaker world.
Much like Corsi, the founder of the company David Raysse had previous experience as a high-ranking executive for Skechers. He is also the former head of basketball for adidas and was the lead basketball designer for Fila.
Billy Dill, the creative director of Brandblack, knew he was in for a tough task and hinted the original ‘ZO2’ was not up to standard (via Slam):
“You cannot make a performance basketball shoe from scratch in three months. Impossible. So in order for them to deliver the highest quality, functioning shoe to their consumer, they would have to change the design or deliver a basketball shoe that you can’t play in.”
The Solution: Zo2 Remix + MB1
In the interview with Slam earlier this week, Dill confirmed that Big Baller Brand was using existing molds to create the shoes for Lonzo and LaMelo:
“We suggested using one of our existing outsole molds as the foundation and we flew to China to implement an all hands on deck type of attack with a very elite factory to get an incredible product made in record time.”
Lonzo, who has already worn the new ‘ZO2 Remix’ during the preseason, is using a mold nearly identical to the Future Legend Low. LaMelo’s MB1 shoe is almost the same as the WearTesters collab with Brandblack’s Rare Metal sneaker.
For LaMelo, the silhouette of the underpinnings is also very similar. The camo pattern on the upper looks familiar as well while the midsole and traction are nearly identical.
Now that the BBB is not covering the molds, considering Brandblack is helping with that, what are the consumers getting for the extra price?
Finish Line has the Rare Metal shoes, which retail for around $110, on sale for $70. These use the same molding as LaMelo’s shoes, on sale for $395. Future Legends, meanwhile are available on the Brandblack website for $120—much cheaper than the $495 that BBB will charge for the ZO2 Remix.
BBB explains some of the new features on its website, and Dill spoke about it with Slam:
“Basically we introduced a new foam compound we were going to release in a new Spring/Summer 2018 product. So that’s different. The upper is definitely different. We also added carbon fiber to the heel and tested multiple carbon shanks for hyper-responsive rebound. But truth be told, Lonzo didn’t like the full-length carbon fiber – and if you watch his game, I don’t think he really needs that anyway … And in a lot of ways, it will become superior on the level of basketball because their prices will be much higher and allow us to push it as far as it can go.”
A budget to match the market price can constrain and limit the potential of a shoe. With this, however, there’s no such problem.
The sneakers may have similar design and performance elements, but BBB customers might get better foam, rubber and knitted materials. Or they can just profit immensely on the first run as consumers have a novelty item.
Then with the surplus money, the cash flow can go back into the business to create new molds for the next edition of each sneaker. Based on projected profit for BBB and Lonzo’s NBA salary, the opportunity to keep growing is absolutely available.